Road rage in the rearview: Looking back at Spielberg’s frightening Duel

1971 Plymouth Valiant vs 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker Duel

Mild-mannered family man David Mann drives along a single-lane road in a bright red Plymouth Valiant. He’s just left suburbia and the city behind him when he encounters a slow-going, smoke-belching truck, a monstrous thing caked in motor oil, mud, and bugs, which dwarfs Mann’s puny Plymouth. If he keeps following the truck, he won’t make his meeting, and he may die choking on exhaust fumes. So Dave Mann passes the truck. There’s no way he can predict that this move will nearly cost him his sanity, and his life.

Duel, Steven Spielberg’s first movie, is a feature-length chase that pits Mann and his Plymouth Valiant against a souped-up diesel. Dennis Weaver of McCloud fame plays Dave Mann, an instantly sympathetic protagonist, a guy just trying to get to a business meeting who’s menaced by a homicidal truck driver for reasons unknown.

Steven Spielberg was only 24 when he directed the 1971 film, an impeccably made thriller with only a 16-day shooting schedule. Duel was inspired by writer Richard Matheson’s intense tailgating experience driving in Grimes Canyon with Jerry Sohl, just after hearing about Kennedy’s assassination. A massive truck and trailer barreled toward their tiny car on the way home, and no matter how fast they sped up, the truck seemed to go faster. “We were screaming out the windows with as much fury about [Kennedy’s] assassination as about him trying to kill us,” Matheson said. The men were finally forced to careen off the side of the road, fishtailing until Sohl finally righted and stopped the car, and Matheson scribbled on the back of an envelope: “Story idea: Murderous truck chases man down rural highway.”

David Mann's 1971 Plymouth Valiant
David Mann (Dennis Weaver) in Duel

About a decade later, Matheson adapted his own short story into a teleplay with producer George Eckstein, around the same time Spielberg’s assistant Nona Tyson handed him an issue of Playboy and told him, “Don’t look at the girls, read the short story. It’s right up your alley.” The short story was Duel, and she was right: Spielberg chased down the project to direct it. Spielberg interpreted Duel as a story about bullying, and he related: “The thing that got me to really push to get hired to do Duel was because I had been bullied, and all of my friends in my little circle of friends had also been bullied, and I knew what it felt like. And even though I tried really hard to anthropomorphize the truck, as an extension of a kind of evil, bullying force, without too much regard for who was driving the truck, it did represent something that made me feel like I knew the material.”

Spielberg wanted Duel to be a silent movie, but the film’s producers didn’t exactly love that concept. So Spielberg compromised, cutting only half the dialogue in the script. The film feels like a test run for Jaws, a pared-down, flawless, paranoiac thriller that Spielberg described as a David and Goliath story: “It’s a primal road rage story. You’re watching a lightweight go up against a heavyweight champion. Like David and Goliath, at first you put your money on the giant and it turns out that David starts to turn the tables. I had also thought of it as a Biblical parable.” And the car itself—a bright red 1971 Plymouth Valiant that pops against the colors of the desert—is an underdog, certainly much less powerful than the truck it’s up against.

Duel’s truck is one of film’s great monsters. Though we know stunt driver Carey Loftin of Bullitt fame was behind the wheel, the truck driver is never seen in the film, giving it a hint of the supernatural. Spielberg had seven trucks to choose from, all lined in a row, and he picked a 1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker, the smallest of the trucks, which he believed they could make up to look “almost human.” Every day, Dennis Weaver would sit in his makeup chair, and so would the truck: about seven or eight people “with large brushes and mops” would spatter it and make it “look really grisly and horrible. It was the same kind of makeup you would do on Frankenstein or The Wolf Man or the Phantom of the Opera.” It had to have personality, and it had to look like a serial killer, “a veteran of these road crimes.”

1971 Plymouth Valiant burnout car chase Duel
Universal Studios

The mystery of the truck driver’s identity and his unpredictable behavior are maybe what’s most frightening about Duel. Mann zooms past the truck, but the window is too high to see the man inside the cab. We only see his big, powerful hand on the steering wheel, his cowboy boots at a gas station. The truck haunts Mann at roadside stops. It is relentless, dominating the landscape and the soundscape, made even more frightening when we realize that it will stop at nothing to kill Mann. The truck endangers several people besides Mann in its dogged pursuit, including children on a broken-down school bus that Mann has stopped to assist. And it is unpredictable: once Mann has fled, the truck driver helps the bus—and then the truck comes along to attempt to push Mann onto the train tracks and into the path of an oncoming train. All we know for certain is that the truck is an inexorable force of nature.

As Dave Mann drives farther and farther away from home, things become more remote, more terrifying, stranger. This is a film about primal and modern fears embodied by the predatory truck, and amplified at Sally’s Snakearama Station, a gas station with rattlesnakes, iguanas, tarantulas, even a coyote on display, all of them set loose when the truck speeds toward Mann in the phone booth. The truck driver not only hunts Mann, he toys with him throughout the film: nudging his bumper, vanishing from view to make him feel a false sense of calm, reappearing out of nowhere to panic him anew, nearly running Mann off the road when he tries to let him pass. The truck driver even tries to trick Mann, waving to him to allow him to pass when there’s an oncoming car in the blind curve ahead. And nearly every character Mann meets along the way is indifferent to his plight. What begins as a road thriller becomes a full-blown horror film.

1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker front
1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker in the review mirror
1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker chasing down the car Duel
1955 Peterbilt 281 tanker driving through a tunnel

Spielberg and cinematographer Jack A. Marta change their shooting style for the end of the film, with slow motion, wide shots, extreme long shots, extreme close-ups, jump cuts, more frenzied shots of Mann’s fearful over-the-shoulder glances, and a new angle: a shot from below, through the steering wheel at Mann’s face. Billy Goldenberg’s percussive score brings in more strings, sounds more frantic. It feels as if the film itself is panicking. But in spite of Mann’s fear, in spite of being beset by a truck that completely outmatches him in power and in menace, in spite of a busted radiator hose, David defeats Goliath. Mann’s final move is ingenious: he shoves his briefcase against the gas pedal and jumps out of the car, tricking the truck driver into pushing the car off a cliff. The slow, dusty death of the truck as it descends into the valley below—and Mann’s subsequent euphoria—is unbelievably satisfying. (Producer George Eckstein confirmed in 1997 that the truck’s dying roar is the sound of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, doctored by sound editor Jim Troutman.) Car chases are always tense and exciting, but Duel’s chase is pure fear, building up to a powerful catharsis.

David Mann runs for his life for most of Duel. It isn’t until the film’s final scene that the hunt becomes an actual duel. Mann puts on his sunglasses, announcing his decision to confront the truck, to switch gears from flight to fight. Mann is beleaguered for the duration of the film, and for most of his life—by other people, by his wife, by his work. He finally learns to overcome his fear and stand up for himself. In the end, Mann triumphs.